Troubleshooting Naughty Bone Broth

I love the whole food and Paleo nutrition movements for many reasons, but especially for luring cooks back into the kitchen for the best possible reasons: to cook sometimes unfamiliar or forgotten foods, to explore new flavors on the way to better health, and to make me feel less weird for my longtime love of making my own bone broth. Do you have any idea what it is like to have your secret foodie geek obsession go mainstream? I must say, it’s pretty trippy.

Truly, once you start making your own broth, it’s hard to accept the stuff in cans and boxes anymore. Getting into a routine of making broth can be irksome at first, because there are so many competing recipes in cookbooks and recommendations on the interwebs. If you are a first-time broth cook figuring out the ropes, or if after years of cooking you end up with a funky batch of broth, it’s extremely discouraging. At least canned broth rarely stinks up your kitchen!

Many cooks get frustrated when their first batch of broth does not quite match the elusive elixir imagined in dreams. Give yourself some space to make a few whoopsies along the way. You will soon learn that bone broth is extremely forgiving and there are precious few absolute rules. You must have a cooking vessel, bones, water, and heat. Everything else is preference. Determining if your broth is great comes down to three simple questions: do you like it? Do you want to take another sip? Does it make you feel good to drink or eat it?

If you make a batch of bone broth to which the answer for the above questions is a firm ‘no,’ then be kind to yourself and keep reading.

My bone broth didn’t turn out at all. It didn’t gel! It’s a total failure, right? I should dump it out.

Do you remember the TV show Home Improvement with Tim “The Tool Man” Taylor? Tim Taylor, played by Tim Allen, was a suburban dad with an awful TV show. He loved power tools and even had a special grunting noise to show his appreciation for especially impressive gadgets. Why am I yammering about this? In a way, the Paleo and ancestral health movements have a similar fascination with making bone broth that gels. It has to gel, right? How we love watching our cooled broth wiggle! And how we also like to sniff about how our broth always gels. However, if people are actually grunting like Tim Taylor over their gelled broth, I don’t want to know.

There is a perception that unless your broth gels, it’s worthless. Is that true?  Not at all. If you are this serious about making bone broth, chances are that you seek the health benefits that bone broth offers. Otherwise, you would skip to Whole Foods and buy some boxed broth.

However, we are working with whole food ingredients, not something made in a factory. Whole foods by their very nature will vary somewhat in nutrient and flavor content, particularly as you move away from processed GMO foods. This is especially true in meat products. While we obsess over gelled chicken broth, all of the protein, healthy fats, and minerals in the broth wait for you to notice them. If you have several pounds of bones and cooked them with 4 quarts or less of water for 8 hours or more, pat yourself on the back. You have made something very nutritious. Does it taste good? Is the aroma tempting? Does it feel silky in your mouth?

So why did gelled broth become the pinnacle of broth-making success? Unfortunately, we don’t have any other reasonable way of measuring whether or not there is any gelatin in our finished broth. Unlike a cake or a souffle, broth doesn’t do anything magical to capture our attention. It doesn’t rise, fall, or do anything remarkable to capture our attention. It would be great if there was a pregnancy test-like dipstick we could use to test each batch of broth, but there’s no such thing. Yet. Could someone start a Kickstarter campaign to make one? I would play with such a gadget all day long.

Using gelled broth as the sole indicator of broth-making success can be inaccurate and misleading. During cooking, heat breaks down the collagen in the bone, skin, connective tissue, and muscle we include in our broth. The collagen breaks down into gelatin, a compound much prized for its healthy benefits. When cooled, the gelatin creates a web within the broth that turns the liquid into a wobbly semi-solid. If there is too little gel, or too much water, that gelatin web won’t be strong enough – and thus your broth won’t gel. A broth that doesn’t gel may, in fact, have lots of gelatin – but too much water. There is a very narrow range between ‘will gel’ and ‘won’t gel.’

Sometimes you can give a broth a second chance to gel. Reduce the stock with the lid off by about 25% over heat below boiling. This will allow more water to escape through evaporation and concentrate the flavor and nutrients in your broth. Return the broth to the refrigerator to cool. You may find that the broth now will have a better ratio of gelatin to water, and will delight you with its bouncy Kardashian awesomeness. Concentration of flavors is another perk of reducing your broth.

But if my broth doesn’t gel, all of my friends will make fun of me and say I am doing it wrong!

Ok, fine! Here’s how to stack the deck to get the best chance at gelled broth.

  • First, pick bones with a lot of connective tissue or bone mass. Think of your own body, and where you have the most bones. (Hint: feet are very complex.) Where there are bones, there is connective tissue to hold it all together. If your broth bones have plenty of joints, you are more likely to add significant gelatin to your broth. It may take a while to find the right bones to suit your taste, style of cooking, and cooking method. You may need to investigate beef and chicken feet or other collagen-filled meats to satisfy your urge for gel.
  • Soak your bones in an acidic marinade before starting your broth. Give your bones a luxurious soak in 1/2 cup vinegar in a bowl with just enough water to cover bones. Any vinegar with 4 to 5% acidity will work. You are welcome to use your special Braggs probiotic apple cider vinegar (ACV) with the mother inside. However, all of the happy bacteria and potential benefits will be dead within minutes of entering a pot of near-boiling broth. Choose your vinegar based on flavor. (I’m fond of champagne vinegar.) It’s very doubtful that you would ever taste the vinegar by the time the broth is done, but why put an awful-tasting vinegar in any food? Save the stinky vinegar for cleaning the bathroom. Some cultures use half of a whole lemon (rind included). Lemon juice is 7% acidity. The pectin in the rind adds body to the broth. Wine is a popular addition to broth, though the acidity is below 1%. If your broth hasn’t gelled and you have been using wine, changing to another acid might help.
  • Stewing chickens are collagen champs. These chickens are usually a year or two older than the average roasting chicken. Stewing chickens offer much to your broth: longer bones with more marrow, more connective tissue, thicker skin, and a nice layer of tasty yellow fat under their thicker skin. These chickens tend to be much cheaper than using a roasting chicken. They can be hard to find, though. To find them, you may need to contact farmers directly or order online. Farmer’s markets are great resources.
  • After stewing chickens, adding a few pairs of chicken feet is often a great way to get broth that gels wonderfully. If the sight of chicken feet bugs you, tuck them under other bones and vegetables in your pot. Many other chicken parts are great sources of collagen: feet, drumsticks, backs, wings, heads, and necks. Wings, backs, and necks in particular have more connective tissues holding joints together, which equals more gelatin in your broth unless you purchased a Chernobyl chicken. And really, shouldn’t that third wing been a total giveaway that your chicken wasn’t quite… normal?
  • If you are making beef broth, look for bones that are joints rather than the cross-cut kind. Cross-cut bones still contain collagen, but joints tend to contain a lot more. I like to use one joint bone and one cross-cut bone for flavor.
  • The cooking duration is an important factor when making beef bone broth. The beef bones are bigger, harder, and tougher than the chicken bone counterparts. After eight hours of cooking, only 20% of the gelatin has been extracted from the bones(1). I recommend a minimum of 24 hours when making beef bone broth. I think the fireworks with beef broth flavor happen around 48 hours, however.
  • Temperature can also be a factor. Gelatin can be destroyed if exposed to boiling temperatures for extended periods.
  • If all else fails, you can add powdered gelatin to your broth. (I won’t tell your friends if you won’t.) You can use Knox unflavored gelatin, which is made from cows and pigs, or a higher quality product such as Great Lakes Unflavored Beef Gelatin. Follow the manufacturer’s directions when determining how much gelatin to add. You will want to add the gelatin powder while the broth is still quite warm. Stir the broth until the powder is fully dissolved, then chill the broth until it gels.

My broth smells… bad.

How bad is bad? Are we talking a scent that is not too appetizing, or a scent that makes you want to fling your broth into a nuclear waste dump site and run?

Mostly it just doesn’t smell very appetizing – not what I was expecting at all.

When we taste homemade stock for the first time, it may not smell or taste at all like the canned and boxed broths we have used before. If it smells truly awful, more investigation is warranted.

First, check the wrappers on your bones and meat. Make sure that none of the following apply to the meat and bones used in your stock:

  • Bones or meat are not past their due dates – check FDA rules for chicken and beef.
  • Bones and meat have been stored at appropriate temperatures to prevent spoilage.
  • Bones and meat came from a quality supplier or store. You may find there are significant differences in quality and odor between pastured/grass-fed and grain-fed beef bones.

Ok, that was the easy part; let’s get back to sleuthing. Deducing the other reasons for funky-smelling stock get a little more complicated from here. So much of the way we feel about the scent of bone broth is highly personal and extremely subjective. Broth that tastes great to one person may cause Exorcist-like nausea in another.

The scent of chicken broth is pleasant to most people. It smells a bit sweeter. Beef broth can smell a little unappetizing but then still taste just fine. If you are confident that the bones and meat in the broth have not expired, take a taste of the broth. Does it just taste sort of like boiled bones? Does it seem to be missing big flavor? Were you hoping for broth that tasted a little more like homemade gravy or nicely browned roast?

My broth smells really boring and unsavory

Add new chopped onion, carrot, and celery to the stockpot, even if you already cooked with these vegetables while you were cooking your broth. Sometimes the fresh vegetable flavors can fade during a long cook. Letting the broth simmer below boiling with new vegetables for an hour or two can boost the flavor. Taste after an hour and determine if you have made progress.

  • Adding herbs, salt, and pepper can also help. I would recommend waiting to salt your broth until the broth is completely cooked and almost ready to store.
  • The leaves from a stalk of celery or a teaspoon of celery seed can have a transformative and almost cleansing effect on the flavor of a less-than-appetizing broth. Let the broth simmer below boiling for one hour.
  • If you did not roast your beef bones, you may be missing the fifth flavor: umami. Does the broth smell like raw meat or just sort of bony? Some people have a profound dislike for broth made from raw bones. You might prefer to roast your ingredients before making your next batch of bone broth.
  • To add umami to a broth you want to fix, simmering chopped fresh mushrooms for an hour really helps. Adding a pound of sliced white or portabella mushrooms can add some of the umami flavor that you are missing. When you next make broth, first place bones in a baking dish and roast for 1 to 3 hours at 400 F. Place roasted bones and any juices from the baking dish into your broth.
  • Some like to roast or saute the vegetables used to flavor the broth. This, too, adds roasted flavors to the broth. Saute the vegetables until they begin to develop little brown flecks. Those flecks mean flavor! I don’t recommend sauteeing the herbs or spices. Some cooks cover beef bones in tomato paste before roasting. The idea is that the tomato paste will brown, adding umami flavor and color to the broth. I recommend this step only if roasting the bones as directed above doesn’t give you enough flavor.
  • If you enjoy the flavor of roasted tomato sauce but forgot to roast your bones with it, it’s not too late. Place 2 TBSP of tomato paste into a very small saucepan. Stir frequently over medium heat until the paste changes to a darkened color closer to brown, much the way you would prepare a roux. Be sure to taste the browned tomato paste before stirring it into your broth. This will ensure that you aren’t adding any scorched flavors to your broth.
  • If you enjoy the flavor of Worcestershire or soy sauce, try adding a 1/2 teaspoon of either sauce in the broth. You want to start low and go slow when adding these flavors to your broth.

My broth is beyond awful. I think something crawled into my crock pot and died!

Some people are extremely sensitive to the smell of broth and beef broth in particular. Some broths stink but taste great. If your broth is reminding you of roadkill, you can still try the steps above to revive the flavor. If the broth cannot be saved and the smell is making you sick, consider getting rid of the broth. I know it’s hard to let go of something you may have been working on for hours and days. I have not found any specific scientific reason in references from leading food scientists to explain why this happens.

Yet I know the smelly broth scenario pops up occasionally, and I wish I had a brilliant method to share with you that would forever prevent it. The use of vinegar to help draw nutrients out of bones is popular now, but even a nice vinegar soak will not completely fix smelly bones.

I quizzed the farmer who provides my grass-fed beef bones. Were some bones smellier than others, I asked? Are there some parts of the cow best avoided? His opinion was that any beef bone should make great broth – even the skull. That’s good to know, but I think I’ll stick with leg bones.

A few other smelly broth considerations:

  • Bones from old or sick cows are sometimes a bit more odorous, but it is often quite impossible to know if your bones came from an old or sick cow. This is when having a trusting relationship with the farmer or butcher providing your beef bones is a huge benefit. You can ask to stay away from bones donated by older cows.
  • Grass-fed or pastured beef bones tend to smell better to me than those from conventionally raised cows, but that is a personal opinion.
  • Some find that cooking fresh or thawed bones creates more odors than starting your broth with cold water and frozen bones. Perhaps frozen bones may have less active and odor-causing bacteria.
  • If you are cooking with bones from game animals, adding wine to the broth can help reduce the ‘gamey’ flavor.

My broth seems very weak and too watery. Can this broth be saved?

This happens most to cooks who are using a crock pot and cooking for short periods of time without vegetables and herbs. Usually you can salvage this type of broth.

  • How long did you cook your broth? You can cook broth from just a few hours to several days. Adding cooking time helps develop flavors and extracts more nutrients from the ingredients. Toss the bones back in until you get more flavor.
  • Were you reusing old bones? Make sure you add some new bones along with the previously used bones. This keeps the flavor bright and also helps keep up the nutrient levels.
  • Sometimes even broth made with plain chicken and beef bones doesn’t smell very appetizing. It might not smell awful, but the flavor might seem too weak. Adding bones with meat (either cooked or uncooked, roasted or unroasted – choose your preference) and simmering a few hours longer may add more of the flavors you enjoy.
  • You can also add more parsley, celery leaves, and newly chopped vegetables to revive the flavor. Yellow onion skins can help brighten the color, though a long cooking time does the best job.
  • Reducing the broth by 25% at heat just below a hard boil can help concentrate the flavors you do have.

You can always jazz up your broth routine by making a bone broth nightcap, which is made with hot broth and easy-to-assemble ingredients. These are helpful if you find it hard to get into drinking bone broth regularly because of the flavor or viscosity of broth.

My broth tastes and smells fine, but it’s really cloudy

Bone broth is considerably cloudier than a traditional consomme or canned broth. What is that cloudy stuff? Nutrition. While clear broths are tasty, they look very different from what a home cook would make. I normally strain my broth through a fine mesh strainer. My major concern is removing all bone fragments, leftover meat, and tired vegetables.

However, to get a clearer broth, you can line your wire mesh strainer with a double layer of cheesecloth. You can clean the strainer, replace the cheesecloth, and repeat the straining until you are satisfied with the result.

High heat can also contribute to cloudy broth. Cooking your broth at a rolling boil agitates the ingredients more, causing small pieces to break off into the broth. As these pieces cook down, they cloud the broth.

The ideal temperature for broth-making is 208-210 F/99 C(2). At this temperature, the surface of the broth will be mostly still. You may see a few small bubbles here and there. Slow and steady wins the race.

(1)McGee, Harold (2004). On Food and Cooking.

(2)Krasnow, M., Bunch, T., Shoemaker, C. and Loss, C. R. (2012), Effects of Cooking Temperatures on the Physicochemical Properties and Consumer Acceptance of Chicken Stock. Journal of Food Science, 77: S19–S23.

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